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Why Ballet Dancers and Choreographers Should Take a Page from Broadway's Playbook

Courtesy Tulsa Ballet

Let me start with a confession: Growing up, I was the type of dancer who believed that there was only one kind of real dance: Ballet! Everything else was for the unchosen ones; other dances were fabricated by humans for the large masses who were not selected by Terpsichore. Dance was human. Ballet was divine.

Fast forward 30 years. I'm the artistic director of Tulsa Ballet, and I now understand that ballet was just a step in the evolution of dance, a journey that started with the Homo sapiens and has taken us to Broadway and hip hop. Now, at age 57, I appreciate ballet but love contemporary dance. But my passion? It resides in Broadway!


Courtesy Tulsa Ballet

It all started, if ever so gently, when I worked with choreographer Gillian Lynne on the BBC ballet A Simple Man in 1987. It was dedicated to the life of the British painter L.S. Lowry and starred Moira Shearer and Chris Gable. Lynne cast me as one of Lowry's paintings, one of the leading roles. She fascinated me; her energy in the studio was off the charts, her ability to get movements and shapes out of her body uncanny. Her expectation that every step she choreographed was executed with meaning, power, strength, energy and commitment refreshing. So, upon coming to the U.S. a few years later, I went to see my first Broadway show, The Phantom of the Opera, which Lynne had choreographed. I was blown away!

Today, as an artistic director, I go to New York City every year for company auditions. Confession number 2: I always buy a ticket to go see a Broadway show. Not New York City Ballet or American Ballet Theatre or Alvin Ailey, but Broadway. And every time I see one of those shows, I wonder what would happen if you were to mix the power and expressivity of Broadway dances with ballet.

Courtesy Tulsa Ballet

I think the current system for ballet companies robs dancers of their edge, whereas in Broadway, you need to remain marketable all the time. When a show opens, nobody knows how long it will run, and there is always a chance you may be unemployed in a matter of weeks. The cast needs to engage their audience show in, show out, as lackluster performances may lead to reduced ticket sales and, rather quickly, the show closing.

This principal also applies to choreographers: On Broadway, a flop means you may not work there anymore. In the concert dance world, choreographers think differently. They are entitled to experiment, and sometimes use company resources to find their voices. There's nothing wrong with that—we all have to find our voices. Yet remembering that dance is a means of communication with the people on the other side of the orchestra pit might make the difference between encrypted communication and human dialog.

Courtesy Tulsa Ballet

This edge, the one that Broadway choreographers and dancers possess, is a bit dull in ballet. This edge, though, is what made ballet companies in the 1950s, '60s and '70s brilliantly exciting—their survival (as institutions and as individuals) depended on each and every one of their shows and performances.

Lastly, the language of Broadway dance is very 21st century. An audience doesn't have to translate from Latin or Petipa to understand the meaning of the work, making its impact instantaneous.

Energy, focus, and the instant communication of emotions and intellectual concepts are what I admire about the Broadway world. I am equally sure that Broadway choreographers are similarly impressed with ballet dancers' technique, purity of shapes and dedication to the art form. We might be the yin and yang of a very wide field, both admiring the green grass on the other side of the fence.

And so, after many years of sitting on that fence, I asked Andy Blankenbuehler to create a piece for Tulsa Ballet. In May, I will have the answer to my quintessential artistic question: What happens when you mix ballet and Broadway? When you combine the ability of perfectly tuned instruments to strike beautiful shapes and do technical feats with the charisma of musical theater? I'll stay tuned for the answer.

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